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A Man of Yet a Few More Words - by Swan Morrison

Ladies Of The Night

My family’s history on the British canals can be traced back to the mid 18th century - the time of the industrial revolution. My forbears transported coal, clay, pottery and numerous other commodities along the waterways. Just one horse could pull a narrowboat stowed with thirty tons of cargo.

In the heyday of the canals, lower transportation costs led to greatly cheaper goods, although canal-folk received little credit from their disparaging, land-based neighbours. Competition from the railways in the nineteenth century, however, and from road transport in the twentieth, led my relatives to fear for their livelihoods and those of future generations.

Then, just prior to the Second World War, as canal life appeared to be reaching its end, a saviour appeared in the guise of Tom Rolt.

My father used to tell of how he had met Tom and Tom’s new wife, Angela, at Banbury on 27th July 1939, just as they were setting-out upon their honeymoon journey aboard their Shroppie fly-boat, Cressy.

Little did Dad know that Tom’s publication of Narrow Boat in 1944, a record of that journey, would trigger the revival of the inland waterways for leisure. So much so that, today, there are more narrowboats on the canals than at the height of their commercial use.

This change of fortunes did not become generally evident until the 1960s. My father, however, together with some of those who still made a living from the canals, had read Narrow Boat and had in 1946 noted the potential offered by the formation of the Inland Waterways Association.

Such entrepreneurs provided services to the expanding leisure market: fuel for stoves; diesel for engines; painting; sign writing; decorative pots and panels; replacement fenders lost to careless collisions; replacement lock keys, by the dozen, for novice navigators and of course narrowboat servicing and maintenance.

My father’s thoughts, however, returned to his encounter with Tom and Angela. He remembered operating the lift-bridge for them at Banbury and recalled the suggestive glance made by Angela at Tom as she had descended the steps into their galley. He observed that Tom had moored Cressy before even reaching Hardwick Lock.

My father knew of many lonely narrowboatmen. He also foresaw the potential for men to hire boats for pleasure. He thus teamed-up with working girls of his acquaintance to discretely add a unique service industry to the waterways with customers by personal recommendation and by appointment only.

Few canal users can recall seeing our narrowboat, Ladies of the Night. She is liveried in black, with her name rendered in shades of grey adjacent to a subdued, crescent moon. She trades between midnight and dawn, and never progresses beyond two miles per hour, lest she disturb the sleep of more conventional canal users. When moving or mooring in daylight she is swathed in the tarpaulins of a working narrowboat and sports panels with a different name.

We now also operate her sister-craft, Gentlemen of the Night, and next season we are hoping to move into the recreational substance market with the launch of PotPourri.

I sometimes wonder what my great, great, great grandfather would have thought of the way our family have carried forward the commercial traditions of the British inland waterways.

I like to think he would have approved.


Photographs are taken on the Oxford Canal, England, between Napton and Banbury

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